Weekly Reading Insights:
Shemini 5780



Overview of the Weekly Reading

To be read on Shabbat Shemini, 26 Nisan 5777 /April 22

Torah: Leviticus 9:1-11:47; Haftorah: Samuel II 6:1-19

Shemini is the 3rd Reading out of 10 in Leviticus and it contains 4670 letters, in 1238 words, in 91 verses.

Shemini begins with a discussion of the service in the Tabernacle on the eighth day, the first day following the seven days of installation. Aharon's eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, brought an unauthorized fire offering and were consumed by flame from the Holy of Holies. Aharon is instructed that the priests should never come to the Sanctuary in a state of drunkenness. Then the completion of the service is discussed. The balance of the portion is a discussion of the dietary laws, specifically which mammals, fish, birds and insects are spiritually pure or not, and which are appropriate to eat and which not.

An Essay from
Rabbi Shaul Yosef Leiter, Director of Ascent

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The opening verse in this week's Torah portion, Shemini, is set on the eighth and final day of the inauguration of the holy Mishkan ('Sanctuary'). The Mishkan was the portable sanctuary used by the Jewish people for the 40 years in the desert until the holy Temple in Jerusalem was built by King Solomon almost 400 years later.

Aharon the High Priest prepared an offering on the inaugural day and placed it on the Altar. The Torah tell us (9/24) that a fire descended from heaven and consumed the offering. The Sanctuary was filled with G-d's presence. All the Jewish people, 2 million of them, saw the miracle, called out G-d's praise and fell down in awe.

Soon after, the two elder sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, lit an 'unauthorized fire' for their incense offering. In response, a fire came from G-d and consumed them and they died. Everyone, including their uncle Moshe and Aharon, were in shock.

If the whole purpose of the Mishkan was to be a place of Divine service, what did they do wrong?

There are three different opinions about what was the offense of Nadav and Avihu that resulted in their death. The first opinion was that their action of bringing an unauthorized fire was based on their interpreting a divine statement on their own, without asking Moshe. A student who renders a decision in the presence of their master deserves to die.

A second opinion counters the first. The sons of Aharon had been taught properly by Moshe. There is an obligation of a priest to light a fire on the Altar which in turn draws down the divine fire. But this law applied only on regular days, not on this special holy day which was the final day of the inauguration. On this day all the fire was supposed to be divine fire, come from heaven. By lighting a fire below first, Nadav and Avihu were guilty of minimizing the miraculous events, thereby lessoning G-d's honor. A person who minimizes a divine miracle in the eyes of the people deserves to die.

The third opinion suggested why Nadav and Avihu were punished was because they entered the Mishkan to perform the sacred service while intoxicated. How do we know this was forbidden? Because immediately after the Torah tell us this story, G-d speaks to Aharon, and warns all future generations of priests that it is forbidden to enter the Mishkan when drunk. But, this warning was after their offense, for the future. How were Nadav and Avihu supposed to know?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe brings a very interesting answer.

Rashi, the main commentary, on the verse, (10/2) "and a fire came from G-d and consumed them", writes the following: Rabbi Eliezer says, the sons of Aharon died because they taught a law in the presence of (without asking) Moshe. Rabbi Yishmael says they went into the Sanctuary intoxicated. Know that after their death the remaining priests were warned not to enter the sanctuary intoxicated. Rashi continues, this is analogous to a king who had a ben bayis, a 'son of the house', someone familiar with the workings of the palace.He then cites his source, the Midrash of Vayikra.

Rashi's commentary was divinely inspired. The Rebbe therefore learns many things from the specific language Rashi uses. On this particular Rashi, the Rebbe finds the words Rashi quotes problematic. If Rashi wanted us to refer to the Midrash, it would have been enough to say, "Analogous to the king… as is discussed in the Midrash". If Rashi wanted to give us the content of the Midrash in his commentary, then saying only "analogous to a king who had a ben bayis" is itself inadequate.

The Rebbe suggests that Rashi's wording is actually telling us what was the reason Nadav and Avihu were punished, even ifonly after their actions, G-d taught the prohibition to not enter the Mishkan while drunk!

The answer is that the reason they were punished is based on the Torah teaching about a king who had a ben melech, someone familiar with the workings of the palace and therefore was expected to know how to behave in a fitting way. A 'son of the palace' understands intuitively on his own. Even without a detailed warning, a 'son of the house', a person intimately familiar with the inner workings of the palace, knows that certain types of behavior are simply the opposite of what the king wants and expects.

Similarly with Nadav and Avihu. Since these were Aharon's sons, brought up in the spiritual center of the Jewish people, they should have known automatically the appropriate way to behave in G-d's Mishkan, even without a direct command. They should have understood that bringing their own fire on this special day was out of place.

The teaching here for each of us is clear. There are 613 divine commandments and many, many laws taught pertaining to how to fulfill them. Yet, where Nadov and Avihu fell short was there are some things, some ways of behaving, that should be apparent even if we are not being told. Every Jew is like a ben bayis, a 'son of the house' -- someone whose respect for G-d and His Torah supersedes all and is apparent to all of us and therefore dictates our behavior, even if we were not directly informed. G-d trusts us and we have taken on this responsibility. The more we study the Torah the more the underlying theme, how a Jew should behave, how to always be alert how to make the world a dwelling place for G-d, should become more and more apparent.

There is a tradition that the scribe always begins to write the Torah scroll on the second column of the parchment. Why is there always a blank column before the scribe starts? To remind us that even before the Torah begins a person has an obligation to be a mentch. What is the proof? The Midrash teaches (Vayika 9/3) that derech eretz (politeness) preceded the Torah!

In the opening pages of the Siddur, the order of our daily prayers, are the words, "Always a person should be G-d fearing (,even) in private." Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk taught that the most important words here are the first 3, "Always be a person". That one should always be proper person, a mentch, no matter what is going on around you…

The Tolner Rebbe once tested a young scholar on the code of Jewish law. "How many sections did you learn," the Rebbe asked? "All four," replied the student. "What about the 5th section. Did you learn that also?" "The 5th section?" asked the student. "What 5th section? I never heard of a 5th section!" "The 5th section," the Rebbe answered, "is to always be a mentch."

Shabbat shalom, Shaul


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For last year's essay by Rabbi Leiter on this week's Reading, see the archive.


Specifically, for an overview of the recommended articles in the columns:
Holy Zohar, Holy Ari, Mystic Classics, Chasidic Masters, Contemporary Kabbalists, and more,
click to Shemini

one sample:

Delight Below, Delight Above

From the teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai; translation and commentary by Shmuel-Simcha Treister, based on Metok MiDevash

The Zohar teaches that every action in this world causes a similar reaction in the higher spiritual realities; as priests, upon whom such immense responsibility lies for drawing down spiritual sustenance, the blemish of torn clothes, unkempt hair, and mournful manner would render inoperative their ability to manifest G-d's benevolence for the world

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